Why Missionaries Should Value Professionalism
Ask most Christians today whether missionaries should value professionalism, and they will squint back at you, confused. Why put such disconnected ideas together? “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem,” or professionalism with missions? But it’s not only rank-and-file Christians who would be confused by the question. Many missionary leaders and trainers also downplay the value of professionalism as they train young missionaries.
Our concerns are well-motivated. Many of us fondly remember John Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. He reminded us that ministry has nothing to do with slick roads to success that depend on carefully calibrated programs to help us climb the ladder from youth pastor to associate pastor to senior pastor. We should all heed Piper’s warning.
But there’s another type of professionalism that is manifestly not what Piper intended to criticize—that is, professionalism as the day-to-day pursuit of excellence in ministry. Such pursuit is what compels Piper to exegete Scripture so carefully and inspired his church to found a seminary.
We easily recognize how necessary this type of professionalism is in other vocations. Write unprofessional on someone’s performance review, and they’ll know they need to shape up or be fired. Professionalism is important in other vocations because we can die if airplane mechanics, physicians, or firefighters work without it.
But what if the same is true for missionaries? Perhaps unprofessionalism and malpractice in missions is dangerous for the same reason they’re dangerous in secular careers—we, too, can hurt people.
Sadly, I’ve seen this happen.
Missionaries who teach or offer counsel without understanding Scripture can do lasting damage the people they’re trying to care for. Missionaries who don’t master the languages they are teaching in, or who embrace overly rapid models of church growth, can do lasting damage to the churches they’re trying to plant. And because missionaries are called to minister to people’s eternal souls, this damage may ultimately bring greater devastation than anything caused by a failed surgery or poorly maintained car.
Unfortunately, we tend to think of missions as fundamentally different than secular vocations because of its spiritual focus. In secular careers, we understand that God works through human means—like careful study and wise, diligent labor. But for some reason we imagine that “spiritual” vocations like missions or ministry transcend the need for thorough study, careful acquisition of skills, and professional excellence. And so, even if missionaries don’t understand Scripture or the beliefs of the people they are targeting, even if their poor grasp of their language of ministry only lets them stammer their way through a few stories about Jesus, we for some reason imagine that Jesus’s love will shine so brightly that their message will be irresistible—or at least understandable.
But this way of thinking forgets an important corollary of the priesthood of all believers: even “spiritual” vocations require hard, human work, and even secular work is a spiritual act of service to God. Indeed, the first man the Bible mentions as being filed with the Spirit is not a prophet but a craftsman and engineer (Ex. 35:31). What’s more, Jesus himself ministered through human means. He healed people through human touch, taught people with human words, spoken in human languages, and discipled people in human relationships built slowly over many years.
If we forget this, we take a small step toward gnosticism, a set of early first-century heresies that saw the physical aspects of life as too profane and unspiritual for God to involve himself in.
Sadly, today’s missionaries don’t embrace the human means of mission as well as previous generations. For example, few missionaries among unreached peoples acquire any real mastery of their languages. Few have much scriptural training or understanding of the religious background of the people they are ministering to. Few spend the long years on the field necessary to disciple new believers to maturity so they can lead the churches missionaries leave behind.
In short, we have begun to minister in slipshod, unprofessional ways.
I want to be clear: I’m not accusing missionaries of laziness here. Most missionaries I’ve met are hard-working, humble, admirable people, and they’re doing the best they know. They’ve only left professionalism behind because they’ve been taught to see it as irrelevant or even dangerous. What lies behind these ideas?
CAUSES OF UNPROFESSIONAL MISSIONS
First, we’ve forgotten our roots. When William Carey first suggested sending missionaries to the unreached, an older pastor rebuked him saying, “Young man, sit down! When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without your help or mine either.” Carey responded by writing a pamphlet that launched the Protestant missionary endeavor. In it, he suggested that believers must use “means” to reach the lost.
God still works through human means today. Yes, God can bring people to Christ apart from human means. He can work through missionaries who don’t know the language of the people they work with—or without missionaries being sent at all. God can do anything!
But we shouldn’t depend on this. The pattern of Scripture shows that God’s Spirit works through human messengers and human means. God’s Spirit could have explained Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch directly, but instead he sent Philip to do so (Acts 8:26–40). The angel could have shared the gospel with Cornelius, but instead he instructed him to find Peter (Acts 10:32).
Second, we’ve grown too focused on speed and numbers. We’ve been captivated by reports of missionaries “catalyzing movements” of hundreds of thousands—even millions—of people coming to Christ without even living among these people or gaining proficiency in their languages. Our motives for embracing these rapid methods have largely been good. We care about people and want to see as many saved as we can, as quickly as possible. But our focus on speed and numbers has resulted in unfortunate changes in how we approach the lost.
In past generations, missionaries like Carey, John Paton, Adoniram Judson, and Hudson Taylor carefully studied their new languages and cultures before their new ministry began. Now, such time-consuming preparation is labeled by some as “sequentialism,” the “third deadly sin of church planting.”1
Other time-consuming ministries, such as discipling new believers in the Scriptures, or training leaders and teachers to guide new churches, are also discouraged. Instead, many of today’s missionaries idealize the strategy of encouraging brand-new believers to disciple other brand-new believers. In some cases, missionaries are even taught that unbelievers may be best off studying the Bible on their own.
Such practices are seen as necessary because the efforts of missionaries and local mature believers can only stretch so far, and new churches are expected to plant new churches only a few months after being established themselves. Quickness and expediency have won the day.
However, everyone knows it’s not a good idea—in fact, it’s impossible!—to start raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren before your children have grown up. And sadly, we’re seeing indicators that many of the massive movements of people to Christ we have heard about were not what they seemed. The enormous numbers—while reported with the best of intentions—may not have represented reality.
What would it mean to return to professionalism?
- It would mean missionaries pursuing scriptural education. Their education need not always be formal. They don’t need a seminary degree, but they must be able to understand the Scriptures with depth and nuance.
- It would mean missionaries acquiring technical skills, including mastering the languages and cultures they work in. Yes, this will likely take several years.
- It would mean that missionaries should dedicate adequate time and resources to the missionary task. They should be prepared to spend many years—perhaps decades—on the field in order to leave healthy churches behind.
- It would mean seeing wise, pragmatic decision-making as a means that God’s Spirit often uses to guide us.
Our role in the missionary task is not a particularly impressive one. We have little to offer, and God could easily reach people without our help.
But because God has chosen to work through us, the unimpressive, slow, “human” aspects of our role remain important. Let us press into them. Let us pursue our task with diligence and professionalism.
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Editor’s Note: For a deeper look at this approach to missions, read Rhodes’ book ‘No Shortcut to Success’
 Garrison, Church Planting Movements: How God Is Redeeming a Lost World (Bangalore, India: WIGTake Resources, 2007), 308.